Columbia University Press
Reviewed by Ian Mowll
This book is about Thomas Berry (1914 – 2009). His ideas have had a profound impact on many people who think deeply about the environmental crisis and seek to find inspiration from the evolutionary journey of the Earth and our many spiritual traditions.
Thomas’ great gift was his wide-ranging research and exploration. He covered many spiritual traditions from Western religions to Asian traditions (particularly Confucianism) and Indigenous cultures. In addition he researched history and science. In our age of overspecialisation, there is a real need for people to make connections across disciplines. Indeed, one way of looking at spirituality is to say that it seeks to provide us with the ‘big picture’.
The first half of the book is about Thomas’ life. Growing up in North Carolina, USA, his time training and becoming a Passionist priest, his frustrations at the strictures imposed by his superiors, and finally his blossoming as a university researcher and lecturer.
The second half of the book is about his ideas and I found this part particularly useful. Thomas’ original writing is not always as accessible as I would like, and here there is a clear explanation of his outlook and how it has influenced others.
One of his main themes is the Universe Story; this is the story as revealed by science from the big bang 13.8 billion years ago, through the creation of the stars and galaxies, our planet Earth, the emergence of life and finally our human journey on this Earth. He asserted that the Universe has an interiority as well as being made of matter. He writes: The reality and value of the interior, subjective, numinous aspect of the entire cosmic order are being appreciated as the basic condition in which the [universe] story makes any sense at all. From this, he sees that humans have a unique capacity amongst life-forms to be self-reflective – we are the Universe reflecting back on itself.
Within this context, he wrote about the ecological crisis, saying that we need a new approach which moves on from the industrial growth driven economy towards living in relationship with the Earth and what he called the Ecozoic age. He often said that the Earth was primary and humans, as well as other species, are secondary; we are all part of the Earth and we must live in a way that supports the life systems on which we depend.
For anyone interested in Thomas Berry and his ideas, this book is a thoroughly worthwhile read. It has given me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of this influential writer.